Meet our polar bear expert

WWF Global Arctic Programme Polar Bear Conservation Coordinator, Geoff York, is hosted by the WWF Canada office, while working closely with the WWF Alaska Field Office as well as the broader WWF team throughout the circumpolar Arctic.
Geoff lived in Alaska from 1990 to 2011 when he went north to pursue a Masters degree in science/biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has recently moved to Ottawa to continue his work with the WWF Global Arctic Programme.

He has many years of field experience in the Arctic, most recently as a biologist and program manager for the US Geological Survey's Polar Bear Project, the leading polar bear research team in the US.

His work included leading field efforts in the capture and handling of hundreds of bears, tagging them, collecting a variety of biological samples to assess their health and collaring a few adult females with radio devices to track the bears' movements on sea ice.

Below are a few of Geoff's thoughts on becoming a biologist in the North, the polar bear, working in the Arctic and about the importance of calories to polar bear field work.

Where are you originally from?
Indiana. My parents are equally shocked that I moved to Alaska for so long.

How did you become a polar bear biologist?
I wish I had a great story. It was really happenstance. I was working on a marine mammal tissue archive program in Alaska, and my supervisor worked on polar bears. So, I just fell in the back door.

Where did you do the majority of your polar bear work?
Most of the time was in the office in Anchorage, planning and coordinating, writing grants and proposals and doing data analysis, which is never ending. Our field work was done around 700 miles north of Anchorage.

How much time did you spend in the field?
It’s a lot less than people imagine. It turns out to be less than two months a year. With polar bears, there’s a short window of time when they can be captured and studied.

When did you go?
We used to do one month in the spring and one month in the fall. But in the spring we don’t have good enough ice to work on anymore. This spring, the sea ice was thinner and more active - noticeably so. There’s so much more open water. We often didn’t have a stable platform to work on. This makes it difficult to find bears and adds to our risk. We’ve seen this just in the past 10 years.

What does it sound like out on the sea ice?
It’s absolutely quiet - utterly still. It’s hard to describe. All you hear is the crunch of snow under your feet. Sometimes you hear a flock of eiders. You can hear their wings flapping, even if they’re really far off.

What does field work entail?
First we would sedate a polar bear with a dart gun. We do standard measurements, like weight and length. We collect a variety of biological samples - blood, hair, fat, faeces. We also paint a big number on the back of each bear with temporary, [biodegradable] fur dye. It lasts three or four months. It’s especially excellent for observing family groups - we can monitor the survival of cubs that way.

What was it like the first time you fired the dart gun to tranquilise a polar bear?
The first time was nerve wracking. No, I didn’t miss, but it was still very stressful. We dart polar bears from helicopters hovering around 15 feet above the ground. It’s stressful for the bear, obviously, and stressful for people, too.

How long does a bear stay sedated?

It’s completely out for one hour then spends about three hours coming out of sedation. You have an hour to get the necessary work completed. Capture work is also very expensive, between $3,000 and $4,000 per bear, so you want to do as much as you can in that hour.

Do you ever interact with non-sedated bears?
Most of the work I’ve done has been on immobilised polar bears, so unfortunately, I don’t get to see them very much behaving like bears. But when I did, I found them to be very curious. They’re not afraid of anything within their domain and sometimes come very close to check things out. Clearly they are quite capable of doing harm, but my encounters have been benign.

What was the largest polar bear you’ve ever seen?
The largest one I’ve ever seen was around 1,300 pounds. The largest one ever estimated was around 1,600 pounds.

How do you find out its weight?
To weigh a bear, you use a fold-up tripod, a net and an engine hoist. You just crank them up while they’re sedated.

So it takes a lot of muscle strength to do your work?
Yeah, it’s basically all physical labour. You’re outside, on the ground, rolling bears around on the ice in the cold and wind. It’s a lot of effort.

When you go into the field, what is the one thing you don’t leave home without?
Besides an emergency locator transmitter? Lots of snack food. You burn a lot of calories when you’re in the field, so we carry a lot of high-calorie food and snacks.

Where do you sleep?
It demystifies the fieldwork for a lot of folks that we’re not sleeping on the ice in tents, but we stay in villages or fixed camps with bunkhouses and heat. They’re perfectly modern. Typically we work for two weeks at each location. Just about the time you’re starting to go stir crazy, you move to a new base.

Have you ever been caught outdoors during a big storm?
Because we are staying in relatively modern places, we watch storms from inside. Being caught out in a storm rarely happens. Sometimes it gets foggy when it’s relatively warm (in the 30s Fahrenheit), which might require us to camp out.

What’s the biggest myth that people have about polar bears?
It’s thought that polar bears are fierce man killers. As I said, my experience has been quite different than that, and most polar bear scientists would say a similar thing. In the past 100-plus years in Alaska, there was only one human fatality by a polar bear.

Now that the polar bear is officially considered a threatened species, what do you now expect the government will do to protect it?
It’s a good question, and I don’t think we fully know. We know what the law says. For example, they must designate critical habitat. They have to come up with a recovery plan. But in Alaska at least, the administration has invoked some administrative exceptions because oil and gas exploration are still a priority. For example, in Alaska, they are using the less stringent Marine Mammal Protection Act, which doesn’t deal with habitat damage, cumulative impacts, or population level concerns.

Alaskan natives are still allowed to hunt polar bears. What’s your view on this?
Basically, my take aligns with WWF’s - as long as it’s done sustainably, I support it. The big question is whether it is still sustainable in all sub populations.  Action will need to be taken in some areas, and it will not be an easy thing to do. The Arctic is home to people who have lived there for centuries, and they rely on this and other natural resources for their culture and livelihoods. Indigenous peoples have to be a part of any solution.

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